Too Cute for Tiny Tale Tellers: Some Thoughts on Translating Series 201 with Luisa Valenzuela

Argentine author Luisa Valenzuela with translator Grady Wray.

I was fortunate to translate this series of flash fiction with the guidance of Luisa Valenzuela. During several meetings in Buenos Aires in the chilly months of June and July of 2017, we discussed several of the different options for a worthy translation of this microfiction. At times Valenzuela was more concerned that I had understood the context of the tales, rather than specific words or phrases. I appreciated her help with contextualization and her flexibility with certain terms. The majority of the tales in the series are based on real events, and so, as Valenzuela and I explored different nuances in English, she recollected how each story had unfolded, and she clarified her original intentions. Of the seven microtales, only five have appeared in press. “Introducción” / “Introduction,” “Explicación racional de un hecho insólito” / “A Rational Explanation for an Unbelievable Fact,” “Llamada” / “The Call,” “Filtraciones” / “Leaks,” and “Exit” appear in Juego de villanos (Valenzuela, Thule Ediciones, 2008, pp. 113-116). “Explicación racional de un hecho insólito” / “A Rational Explanation for an Unbelievable Fact” was again published with a different title (“Esclarecimiento”) in 201 (Ediciones Altazor, 2013, p. 104), an anthology of microfiction compiled by David Roas and José Donayre in which all ninety-nine microtexts by ninety-nine different authors allude to rooms with the number 201.

When I first read Valenzuela’s series I did not notice any major difficulties that I would confront when translating, but as always, certain obstacles were waiting between the words and between the languages. Some phrases caused me to stretch to accommodate an interesting English. However, I took some of the obstacles too seriously and tried to incorporate them even though, in the final translation, I omitted them because my efforts detracted from the singleness of effect for which I aimed throughout the process.

I followed the guiding principle of wasting no words, and because they are “tiny tales,” I felt brevity was best. I did not want to detract from the singleness of effect of a good short tale but rather to enhance this effect. Every word was important, and I aimed to lead the reader to the end without delay. Additionally, because I wanted the stories to reflect this short accented style, I decided to use as much alliteration as possible to accentuate the reading experience. I “found” this alliterative style more in the English than in the original. Alliteration adds a touch of staccato-like rhythm to this genre that focuses on quick wit and short snippets. It accentuates a clear rhythm and leads to a final jolt similar to clanging symbols at the end of a short musical phrase. I wanted a type of “rat-a-tat-tat… clang” for each one of the tales. To continue with this staccato effect, I shortened sentences to quicken the pace of the reading and punctuated in a more concise style. I may have gone too far, or been “too cute” with the alliterations, but Valenzuela seemed to appreciate the effect, and in fact, she provided some interesting alliterations.

The title itself proved more difficult than I had assumed: The Spanish is “Serie 201.” Some choices were: “The 201 Series,” “Series 201,” or I wondered if I should add more clarification and call it “The Room 201 Series,” giving more information to the readers. However, because Valenzuela kept it short, so did I, and I chose “Series 201.” I like that it leaves things rather open, much like the series itself. The title, both in Spanish and English, suggests flexible meanings.


1. “Introducción” / “Introduction”

An early hurdle was “Tiny Tale Tellers” vs. “Microstory Tellers” vs. “Microtale Tellers” vs. “Microfiction Writers” vs. “Fast Fiction Writers” vs. “Flash Fiction Writers.” My first attempt at “microrrelatistas” yielded “tiny tale tellers.” Some could argue that too much alliteration, “t-t-t,” again, is “too cute” or too trite for this task; however I decided to leave it and see what Valenzuela thought. Even before I had shared the written paragraphs with Valenzuela, I mentioned that I might use “tiny tale tellers” to express “microrrelatistas” in English. She quickly pointed out that she was referring to microfiction writers and not only to those who tell tiny tales. She liked the idea of the alliteration of tiny tales, but felt that “teller” did not best reflect “relatista” as writer. In Spanish, a “relatista” or “tale writer” (similar to “novelista” = “novelist” and “cuentista” = “short story writer”) is not the same as a “relator” who is a narrator, or teller, only. So, defeated, I went back to the “less cute” microfiction writer, which is absolutely correct, but it didn’t have the punch I wanted at the beginning. On a subsequent meeting with Valenzuela, however, she suggested “flash fiction writers” in order to maintain an alliteration and also reflect that the people responsible for these texts are writers. Luckily some alliteration returned, and keeping alliteration alive, I went out of my way, perhaps too far (again being too cute), to maintain Valenzuela’s reference to Coleridge’s “frase feliz,” which I could have easily left as “happy phrase,” maybe “famous phrase.” But I chose “curious quote” to hit the hard “c” sound of Coleridge one more time.

My initial attempt at the last paragraph of the introduction was, “I opened myself up to the mystery proposed by David’s very tiny tale with a somewhat ironic smile, like someone who’s watching a game, without even suspecting it’s a game: It was a net in which, like David, I would very soon find myself trapped.” When Valenzuela read this she was quick to point out that she wanted to stress that this was “no game at all.” She also astutely offered “entangled” instead of “trapped” as the final adjective to describe how one is caught in a “net.” The final version is: “I opened myself up to the mystery proposed by David’s very tiny tale with a somewhat ironic smile, like someone who was watching a game and did not even suspect that it was no game at all: It was a net in which, like David, I would very soon find myself entangled.


2. “Explicación racional de un hecho insólito” / “A Rational Explanation for an Unbelievable Fact”

The alliterations I found in this tiny tale surfaced in the following ways. “Reincidencia” is a great word in Spanish and offers a hint of second or third “offense” with a criminalistic tone such as recidivism. I could have used recurrence or reoccurrence; however, I avoided the original word completely and added more alliteration: “after the third terrifying time.” When faced with “ultra secret solution” vs. “super secret solution,” again, alliteration won. Valenzuela helped with wasting no words when she suggested “inadvertently” for “knowing absolutely nothing” to translate the phrase “sin que se note en absoluto.” Finally, a nice rhyme appeared at the end of this tale: Head and bed (“…they courteously greet each other with a slight nod of the head, without knowing that they’ve all slept together in the same bed.”).    

The tale also yielded the term “milhojas” and exemplifies how something was lost in translation. Milhojas is a delicious multilayered word that can mean a multilayered puff pastry dessert or, literally, “a thousand pages/sheets of paper” upon which a thousand tales could be written. Due to its various meanings expressed in Spanish with only one word (what a fine example of not wasting words), it was better to let this one get lost, and merely translate it as “multilayered.” However, I could not resist the temptation to try to include it in English. I risked too many words that did not lead to a strong conclusion and added a parenthetical phrase to try to capture the multiple meanings of milhojas: “(the luscious layers of a delicious millefeuille puff pastry come to mind).” I chose the French word “millefeuille,” which does exist in English culinary manuals and more closely relates to the Spanish to suggest the many different layers, pages, “hojas,” or stories that could possibly happen in room 201. I could have used the Italian “mille foglie” because the tale takes place in Italy. Some possible parenthetical options were:

a. “that could be called ‘multiuse’ or even better millefeuille or ‘multilayer.’”
b. “that puff pastry that has uncountable layers.”

After all my clever (cute) tries, Valenzuela wrote “no necesitamos aclaración,” and thus, my parenthetical addition of “the luscious layers of a delicious millefeuille puff pastry come to mind” got lost, and I chose simply “multilayered.” If I had added the parenthetical phrase, it would have distracted from the singleness of effect and added needless words.

The wonderful use of “rezar” (to pray) in Spanish to mean what is written on the room key is, alas, also lost, and I replaced it with the unappealing “says”: “la llave magnética en un sobrecito que reza ‘201’” translates to “the magnetic keycard in a little envelope that says ‘201.’” Lost in translation…

My non-gender-specific bias did not want to make the tourist in this tale a male, but Valenzuela does use the masculine pronoun to refer to him, so I chose to leave it as it was in the original, which brings us to another difficulty. How should one express “en pareja” in English? Unfortunately, English does not have a wealth of synonyms to express “boyfriend,” “girlfriend,” “companion,” or “partner,” and there are many hidden implications in these words. Spanish has the complicated “novio/a” that can stand for boy/girlfriend, fiancé/e, or bride/bridegroom, but in recent years other terms have surfaced to avoid this rather dated expression. “Pareja” tends to mean someone with whom one lives and has a committed relationship, but no marriage. “Amigovio/a” can be closer to “friends with benefits.” However, when I first read “pareja” in this microtale I felt that this could represent a rather non-committed relationship for whomever may be travelling. Additionally, in English it has been used to suggest a same sex commitment, not to mention the “business partner” possibility. Thus, my first attempt avoided a strict translation: “The unsuspecting tourist arrives, alone or with someone, and checks in as expected.” When I expressed my concern about this term, Valenzuela felt that partner was indeed the best translation; therefore I used: “The unsuspecting tourist arrives, either alone or with a partner, and checks in as expected.”


3. “Llamada” / “The Call”

The only doubt I had in this short paragraph was the use of “promiscuous.” Promiscuous is somewhat more sexually loaded in English than in Spanish, but given Valenzuela’s style in other texts, I didn’t think it was too daring to leave the sexual tone.


4. “Filtraciones” / “Leaks”

An interesting typo in the original gave both Valenzuela and me the idea of leaving a word incomplete at the end of this tale. When I first read “Filtraciones” / “Leaks,” the word “escribir” had not been finished: “está empezando a esfumarse el papel en el cual escrib.” Because the tale mentioned the disappearance of the paper, I thought perhaps Valenzuela was playing with her readers; so I left a word unfinished in the translation. She noted that it was not a typo, but she so enjoyed the unintentional trick, that she decided to leave it as it was in the original and suggested “disapp” for “disappear” in the translation.


5. “Exit”

Of all the microtales in this series, Valenzuela and I most discussed “Exit” (the title in both Spanish and English). I had misread/misunderstood (thus mistranslated) a few sentences, and it was important for her to clarify and tighten up this entirely fictitious tale. It all started with how to translate “muchacho,” the catch-all term for boy, young man, guy, or kid. Valenzuela wanted to make sure that I did not translate the term as “boy”: “no es un boy, es un muchacho grande,” she told me. I had originally translated it as “kid” and used “boy” when the term was repeated later: “Unaware of the big secret about rooms 201, the poor kid began to worry.” Her first suggestion was “chap.” Indeed, “chap” does capture a somewhat generic term for “man,” but it adds a hint of British flavor to the story that I felt was unnecessary because the story takes place in Italy. I had already decided to leave the nickname for the grandfather as “Nonno,” the Italian term for “Gramps,” so I felt that “fellow” might be even more generic without too much regional emphasis. Valenzuela was also keen on “lad,” but I thought it leaned more toward “boy” and still maintained a British regionalism. Other terms that could have worked are: “guy” and “young man.” Finally I settled on “fellow.” A similar trickiness with translation of terms like “muchacho/a,” “chico/a,” can transfer to the term “viejo/a,” and some readers of both the Spanish and the English may wonder why I chose to translate “chismes de vieja” as “simple gossip.” At first, I was very proud of my translation of “old-lady gossip.” However, Valenzuela did not like “old-lady,” and we decided to go with “simple gossip” instead.

A wheel chair is key to setting the scene for this tale. The original Spanish states: “La [silla de ruedas] alquiló [el muchacho] por veinticuatro horas, alegando que debían mudar a su abuelo al geriátrico. Solo veinticuatro horas. Total, si hay retorno la devuelve mañana mismo, y si no hay….” My first attempt: “He rented it for twenty-four hours guessing that they’d have to move his grandfather to the old-folks home. Only twenty-four hours. And anyway, if they come back, he’ll return it tomorrow, and if not, there’s no….” Valenzuela was essential for improving these sentences to: “He rented it for twenty-four hours claiming that he only needed it to move his grandfather to the old-folks home. Only twenty-four hours. Anyway, if he’s able to bring his grandfather back, he’ll return it tomorrow, and if not….” I had originally thought that “si hay retorno” was “if they come back” (I had taken some license here already), but Valenzuela’s clarification, “if he’s able to bring his grandfather back,” helped prepare the reader for the tale’s ending.

“Inquietud” suggests many possibilities in English: curiosity, restlessness, and anxiety, to name a few. However, this “inquietud” gnaws or eats at the character (“corroe” in Spanish). I chose to make a bold change to “eating him alive.” I considered “gnawing at him,” which would have been a wonderful translation too. The original was, “Ahora está de regreso en la misma habitación 201 donde ha pasado los últimos tres días junto con su abuelo, porque la inquietud lo corroe.” Valenzuela helped to divide the long sentence into two separate shorter ones for a final translation of: “Now, he was back in the same room 201 where he had spent the last three days with his grandfather. Anxiety was eating him alive.”

My misreading/mistranslation occurred when I translated, “Está el baño, idéntico, inamovible, con el inodoro muy alto, las barandas para sostenerse, la ducha sin reborde…” as “He’s in the bathroom, the identical bathroom, the stationary bathroom with the raised toilet, the grab bars to steady oneself, the shower without an edge….” Luckily Valenzuela caught my error of “He’s in the bathroom” and I changed it to the correct, “The bathroom is there.” She also suggested “undisturbed” instead of “stationary” for a final translation of: “The bathroom is there, identical, undisturbed, with the elevated toilet, the grab bars to steady oneself, the shower without an edge….”

“Deposiciones” and “deyecciones” were challenging. “Depositions” in English typically refers to a legal testimony or removal from power or overthrow and would not suggest the feces that Valenzuela implies. Excrement, a bowel movement, intestinal evacuations, eliminations, and expulsions are possible choices, but I felt they were either too bold or not suggestive enough. I toyed with the idea of “deposit,” as in: “Did you leave a deposit (ha ha ha) after you went to the restroom?” When Valenzuela and I discussed this choice, she was more than eager to use “feces” for one of the translations. I remained hesitant because I still felt that it was too “medical” or strong for a translation of either “deyecciones” or “deposiciones,” so I asked which was most strong in Spanish and Valenzuela felt that “deposiciones” carried a more unpleasant tone in Argentine Spanish than “deyecciones.” Thus, I decided to first use “defecations” for “deposiciones” and “excretions” for “deyecciones.”

“Reclamar” in Spanish is always difficult for me because its meaning can significantly change depending on context. In this tale, Valenzuela writes: “volver para reclamárselo” (return to turn him in / make a claim against him / file a report / lodge a complaint / complain about it). I chose “return to turn him in,” but Valenzuela suggested “recriminate him.” We finally agreed on “reprimand him,” and I greatly appreciated the clarification. Some other possibilities were “get on to him,” “gripe at him,” or “gripe him out.” All of which I found too colloquial.

In keeping with the desire to eliminate needless words Valenzuela and I changed the following original Spanish, “cerrará la puerta y buscará la mejor manera de hacer girar con unas pinzas esas llaves que solo funcionan del lado de la habitación,” to “close the door and look for a way to turn the keys from the other side of the door with some tweezers.” My first attempt, “close the door, and look for the best way to turn the keys with some tweezers because they were on the outside of the door, facing the room,” seemed too difficult to follow and wasted too many words.


6. “Represalia de la 201” / “Retaliation from Room 201”

This tale is based on one of Valenzuela’s lived experiences, and upon re-reading it, she told me of the intense food poisoning episode she experienced in Viet-Nam and how the next day she was scheduled and obligated to take a river cruise in which they gave her her own cabin in the boat so she could lie down and recover.

A wonderful alliteration that got lost in translation was “Maravillosa maldición.” Maybe a big change could have been “cruel curse,” but at the end of this tail, I used “cruel” to modify vengeance. Valenzuela suggested “curious curse,” and I was thrilled. We had only used “curious” one other time in the series: the “curious quote” from Coleridge in the introduction. I felt that “curious curse” was a nice echo from the introduction. To return to the use of “cruel” in “Qué cruel venganza,” I listed several choices for Valenzuela: “What (a) cruel vengeance,” “What a cruel way to get back at me,” and “Payback is a bitch.” She chose, “What a cruel vengeance.”


7. “Nunca más” / “Never Again”

Some of the slight “gains” in translation in this last tiny tale included words in English that do not have easy equivalents in Spanish. “Acompañar” can easily translate as “to accompany,” but “me acompañaba escaleras arriba” yielded “ushered me up the stairs.” “To usher” does not have a clear equivalent in Spanish. It could be “acompañar” / “guiar” / “llevar” / “escoltar” / “acomodar,” but it works nicely here instead of “accompanied.” Additionally, Valenzuela clarified “tapiadas” in the phrase: “por dentro tenía todas las ventanas tapiadas.” My first attempt was: “but on the inside, all of the windows were covered.” However, with Valenzuela’s memory of a lived experience, the final translation reads as follows: “but on the inside, all of the windows were boarded up.”

Of course, the final two sentences of the series would cause much grief: The original Spanish reads: “¿Por qué me sorprendió comprobar que se trataba de la 201?

Me sorprendió, sí, pero supe agradecer mi buen instinto.” Here, Valenzuela even decided to change the original to “¿Me sorprendió comprobar que se trataba de la 201? No, no me sorprendió, pero supe agradecer mi buen instinto.” While “Did it surprise me to see it was 201?” is acceptable, “comprobar” can be problematic (confirm / verify / realize / check). I chose “see” because the character is just passing by and glances to see that it was room 201. There does not seem to be a clear desire to “confirm,” but yet to “notice.”

“No, no me sorprendió, pero supe agradecer mi buen instinto” caused many more possibilities. A close translation would be: “No, it didn’t surprise me, but I knew / found out / learned to thank my good instinct.” Since the preterite of saber (supe) can mean to “find out” or “learn” something for the first time, “I learned to thank my good instinct” could easily work. Some other possibilities are:

a. “I learned I needed to thank my good instincts.”
b. “I learned I had to give thanks for my good instincts.”

But if we search the mind of English speakers a bit more, we might come up with the following:

a. “I didn’t forget to thank my good instincts.”
b. “I gave thanks to my good instincts.”
c. “I did remember to thank my good instincts.”
d. “I learned to thank my good instincts.”
f. “I found out that I needed to thank my good instincts.”

However, let’s reconsider “good instincts” or “buen instinto.” Given what happened in the previous tiny tale, “Represalia de la 201” / “Retaliation from Room 201,” in which the narrator spent the night in convulsions from intestinal problems due to what seems to be a food poisoning episode, the idea of a “good instinct” as a “gut instinct” comes to mind. This leads to “trusting one’s gut instincts” or simply “trusting one’s gut.” Therefore more options are:

a. “I was thankful/grateful I trusted my gut instincts.”
b. “I didn’t forget to trust my gut feelings.”
c. “I was thankful/grateful I trusted my gut.”
d. “I learned to thank my gut instincts.”
e. “I found out I needed to trust my gut.”

Let’s return once again to native English speakers who may not be “thankful” or “grateful” but rather “glad,” which continues to add a final alliteration. Therefore I narrowed it down to three choices:

a. “I was grateful I trusted my gut.” (This still maintains an echo of “agradecer” for “to be thankful/grateful.”
b. “I was glad I trusted my gut.” (Both “a.” and “b.” allow for the alliteration of the “g” in the last line (glad/grateful and gut).
c. “I learned to trust my gut.”
d. “I learned to thank my gut instincts.”

Finally, in keeping things concise and maintaining the meaning of “agradecer,” I chose:

“I was grateful I trusted my gut.”

Just as I am grateful to Luisa Valenzuela for helping me to trust my gut in this series of tiny tales of flash fiction.

Grady C. Wray
University of Oklahoma


LALT No. 4
Number 4

The fourth issue of LALT highlights underrepresented but deserving voices from across Latin America, with a focus on women writers as well as special sections dedicated to genre-bending science fiction, indigenous-language poetry and prose, and the essential relationship between author and translator.

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